The workers of Manitostroi

The trouble with planning out every aspect of life is that you simply can’t. You can’t account for unexpected drought or famine or war- and especially not for the will of the individuals. Stalin and the Bolsheviks discovered this the hard way, with the implementation, and subsequent failures of their “Five Year Plan.” One of the most notable examples, Magnitostroi, is presented by Stephen Kotkin in his article, “Peopling Magnitostroi.”
The poor, the illiterate, and the exiled were all shuffled off to a desolate city, Magnitostroi, to spend months at a time laboring away at products they would never be able to enjoy. Entirely dependent on the train, their only connection to the outside world, inhabitants were cut off from family and friends. The city grew from twenty-five people to 250,000 in the space of three years, but this was no indicator of its prosperity. Many of the workers were given advances to convince them to work in Manitostroi, but even those who received money often fled after short periods of time. The government was unable to account for the simple misery of the residents of the city. According Kotkin, “even for the standards of the day, living conditions on the site were harsh”1 No amount of money in the world (and certainly not the amount the workers were receiving) was enough to entreat most to stay.
So why did the government insist on building a city out of nothing, on shaping and sculpting a desolate patch of ground to its every whim? Was it in a show of power- to prove that nothing was stronger than the willpower of the people, forced by the hand of the government? Was populating Magnitostroi truly an achievement, as officials claimed, or was it a blatant imposition on free will?

  1. Kotkin, Stephen. “Peopling Magnitostroi: the Politics of Demography” in Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization. Berkley: University of California, 1993: 84. []

2 thoughts on “The workers of Manitostroi

  1. To answer your last question, Free will did not exist in the Soviet Union. As we read in the book, WE, people were supposed to represent ‘sameness’ and unoriginality. As I-330 stated, originality represented stepping out of line. In the Soviet Union, you could not step out of line. You could not be original. Everyone was expected to work for the state. Class was supposed to be eliminated. In the case of Magnitostroi, this city represented an opportunity for the ‘undesirable’ to do work that others would not want to do. It represented tasks people were supposed to do, regardless of the conditions. As the author notes, this city “lacked any elements necessary to sustain large construction….The severe continental climate…” ((Stephen Kotkin, Peopling Magnitostroi: the politics of demography. 63)) The state, instead of forcing the common workers to work there, used its less skilled and less desirable portion of the population to work there.

  2. You make some very interesting points, especially about the worker’s unwillingness to relocate to a desolate steppe that was unfit to receive and shelter them and how doing so was a violation of their free will. In “On Soviet Industrialization,” Lewin appeals to your question about why the Party chose to construct a city out of nothing, arguing that the Soviet Union was technologically and industrially behind many European and western countries and was therefore under internal pressure (from Stalin) to industrialize and “accelerate production [and] innovate” (273). By forcibly relocating and training peasants, kulaks and other citizens in Magnitostroi, one could argue that the State was trying to modernize the entire workforce in a speedy, uniform fashion.

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